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Nigeria's 10.5 million children today, Nigeria's headache tomorrow?

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On 19 November 2013, I attended the launch of the “2013 Country Visit Report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria” that took place in London. [1] The report described the observations of two British Parliamentarians who visited Nigeria in July 2013 and covered interesting topics including the Human Rights of Nigerian women and children. However, in a footnote on page nine of the report there was reference to the recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) report which stated that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world at 10.5 million. [2]

I was sad when I read this. But why should I be sad? Should it matter to me? After all, I am not affected. I and all members in my family are educated. Also there are more Nigerian children attending school than those not attending. And the majority of Nigerian children out-of-school appear to come from the northern part of Nigeria, which is far away from where I come from in the deep south of the country. So it has nothing to do with me or my family. End of story, full stop.

But this is a selfish and naive view that misses the bigger picture. Just because I was lucky to have educated parents who could afford to pay for the education of me and my three sisters, does not mean I should ignore less fortunate Nigerian children. It is no Nigerian child's fault if they are born in poor families who cannot afford to send them to school. After all, no one chooses where they are born.

If the 10.5 million figure is true, then Nigeria must act urgently. There are economic, political and social negative consequences for Nigeria if nothing is done. In this essay I will first give four reasons why I think it concerns all Nigerians and then offer four suggestions that I think can mitigate this sad situation.

The negative effect on Nigeria's long term interest

Firstly, the economic argument. The education and training of Nigeria's workers will be a major factor in determining just how well our country's economy will be. The 10.5 million Nigerian children out-of-school today, will tomorrow become 10.5 million Nigerian young adults looking for work. But their lack of formal education will not prepare them for a future Nigerian knowledge based economy with new technologies in work practices. Their choice of jobs will be limited to unskilled, low paying jobs that will do little to increase and sustain a growing Nigerian economy or improve their individual and family wellbeing. Nigeria will struggle to compete with other countries in international trade and commerce, and Nigerian employers will struggle to attract capable, adaptable and competent enlightened workers. Potentially, Nigeria may suffer a huge skills gap. More worryingly, when the current Nigerian educated work force departs, how many of these 10.5 million young adults will be able to replace them?

Modern history teaches us that successful economically developed nations have a diverse educated work force. The more Nigerian workers that are educated the more that can produce valuable goods and services and adapt easily to new work practices. An educated Nigerian workforce potentially earns more income to spend on Nigeria's goods and services and provide more tax revenue for governments to spend for everyone's benefit in healthcare, transport, security, housing and education. Increased Nigerian consumption can also encourage investment, both domestic and from abroad, which can create more job opportunities for Nigerian youth. This multiplier effect can lead to a sustained economic growth and development for the benefit of all Nigerians.

Secondly, the socio-political argument. Most of Nigeria's current socio- political problems can be mitigated, and in the long run minimised, in my view, if the majority of the population is properly educated. Education, broadens the mind and gives one the ability to critically view issues. An educated person usually makes decisions based on sound reasoning and logic. Education can also give a person confidence to question and challenge assumptions. Therefore, the more Nigerians that are educated, the more confident people there will be to critically analyse government policies and hold officials to account for their actions or inactions.

On the other hand, the more the number of uneducated Nigerians the greater the opportunity for the fewer richer ruling class to exploit their ignorance and manipulate them. Given that the uneducated poor's living standards are below the poverty line, they are easily vulnerable to such manipulation.

Thirdly, the security argument. It is open to debate whether there exists a causal link between violent crime and terrorism on the one hand, and low levels of education in the populace on the other hand. I believe that there is a link. I appreciate that this proposition may appear simplistic. I also accept that there is no guarantee that if every Nigerian was educated, all social ills and terrorism will be eradicated. After all there have been some high profile educated criminals and terrorists in Nigeria and around the world.

That said, let's just pause for a moment and imagine I am the head of the recruitment arm of a terrorist outfit or a criminal organization. Would I find it easier to persuade an uneducated Nigerian to join my organization? An educated Nigerian is likely to critically analyze my evil proposal. Also, an educated Nigerian is likely to have more options in life which he/she can weigh up against my proposal. On the other hand, an uneducated Nigerian may have very few alternatives, if any, and so consider my proposal a risk work taking. He/she may feel they can't get any poorer. After all, a person who is down need fear no fall. So a poor uneducated person may think he/she has little to lose and potentially all to gain. They are easier to persuade that they can potentially improve their life, or afterlife, and leave their current miserable existence by agreeing to my proposal and committing crime. Therefore, the more uneducated Nigerians there are the greater the risk of recruitment for terrorism and crime. An uneducated population is fertile ground to plant seeds for crime and terrorism. It is no surprise then, that terrorist groups generally recruit from areas where illiteracy and lack of basic education is very high.

But I have often heard it said that this is largely a northern Nigerian problem and does not affect the rest of educated Nigeria. I think this view is wrong. In the long run it affects all Nigerians regardless of where they are from. I will explain how in my fourth and final reason.

The fourth reason is that we are all in this together. An African proverb says if one finger is soiled with oil, it is just a matter of time before the oil spreads to the other fingers. We delude ourselves if we think the rest of Nigeria is not immune from the security situation in north-east Nigeria. It is common knowledge that the Nigerian federal government is spending vast amounts of money, effort and energy to deal with the current violence being experienced in the north-east states. But this is Nigerian money that could have been invested productively around the whole country to improve healthcare, education and other infrastructures for the benefit of every Nigerian. We are all poorer now because a lot of our scares national resource is being used to fund an expensive war against terrorism, which, in my view, is exacerbated by an uneducated population in that region.

Similarly, the government's inability to collect taxes from the north-east states due to the violence there is also a loss to Nigeria as a whole. Estimated figures published in October 2013 by the Nigerian ministry of finance suggest that 400 billion naira was not collected in taxes from the north-east states in 2012 because of the troubles in those states.[3] This figure is more than half of the entire Nigeria 2013 Federal budget figure of N705 billion for Human Capital Development (i.e. Education and Health).[4] This is a an increasing financial loss to Nigeria. Therefore, it is arguable that if, as I suggest, there exists a causal link between an uneducated population and terrorism, then the real cost of dealing with this terrorism is the lost opportunity of using that money to fund initiatives in key sectors for the benefit of all Nigerians.

For Nigeria to address these negative consequences I believe the government and all Nigerians must together intervene quickly. In the words of M. Gandhi, “the future depends on what you do today.” Here are my four suggestions on how this may be achieved.

Suggestions
Firstly, we must make attending schools attractive and worthwhile for all Nigerian parents to send their children, and keep them there throughout school age. It is not enough to legislate that primary and secondary education is compulsory, or to build classroom blocks all over the land without first building a foundation for these schools to operate successfully. One way of doing this is to provide for each child adequate writing and reading books, healthy school meals and free annual health checks. This holistic approach will assist in improving the Nigerian child's learning.

The child's learning experience must be supported by provision of good quality books. This is critical. Good quality education must take precedence over the quantity of school buildings being constructed. After all, what is the point of millions of our children having access to schools if they don't have access to an education? Our children may be in “school” but are they learning? Provision of adequate learning resources, school libraries and access to information technology for children to use will also motivate children to learn and importantly encourage parents to send their children to school. Teaching and learning will also become easier, enjoyable and more satisfying.

There must be annual health checks for every school child, with proper medical records kept for early detection and management of potential illnesses. These must be provided free by the State. Equally important is that children with disabilities must be supported at all levels of their education. For example, there should be free transportation to and from school for children with disabilities and appropriate equipment to aid their learning. Equally important, children with “special learning” needs must be identified and supported appropriately throughout their time in school.

School meals must be provided for all school children. We all know that learning is difficult when you are hungry. By providing healthy school meals Nigerian children will understand their lessons better, and they will grow up to become healthy and educated young adults ready to sustain the modern Nigerian economy. Another benefit of this policy is that we will utilise our God blessed fertile land more efficiently and help sustain and develop our agriculture industry. Farming will be rewarding because there would be a ready market. Other subsidiary industries such as catering, transport and power will develop and expand as a result of this policy as well. In the long run we would have a healthy educated society to replace the current generation when they depart.

Providing adequate books, free school meals, health checks and subsidised transportation will lighten the burden of poor parents, encourage them to send their children to school and enhance the child's learning experience. All Nigerian parents would have peace of mind knowing that their children are being cared for.

Secondly, we must invest in our teacher's training so they have the skills and knowledge to provide for our children quality functional education. Well trained teachers are critical to a successful Nigerian education policy. Our teachers must be capable of teaching our children relevant skills they will need to compete successfully in the modern competitive world. Apart from basic literacy and numeracy skills, vocational training at all levels must be taught as well as the sciences and information technology. Our teachers must be kept up to date with new and emerging work practices and teaching methods. This will involve investing in the provision of current text books and their supporting teaching texts, reference books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, adequately stocked school libraries, educational DVDs, information technology equipment, and most importantly continuous teacher training and monitoring. Special needs teachers must also be trained to identify and support children with learning difficulties. All teachers must be trained not just to teach but to inspire our Nigerian youth to go onto great things in whatever they choose to do.

But it need not be left to just the Government to do this. We all have a role to play. Parent teachers associations must be galvanized to raise funds to compliment government funding. Business and local companies should contribute as well as part of their social corporate responsibility so they will have an educated work force to sustain their businesses. Educational school trips for the children and teachers must be part of the school curriculum, and children working in teams whilst learning must be encouraged. The soft skills acquired from functional education will better prepare Nigerian children for the world of work they will face in the future.

Thirdly, invest in adult basic education. This is also critical. Every illiterate adult in Nigeria should be given a second chance to learn. The same UNESCO report noted that 35 million Nigerian adults were illiterate. [5] This is shameful and risky. 35 million Nigerian illiterate adults pose a threat to our economic development. All adults who missed out on education when they were children should be encouraged to learn to read and write. An educated parent is able to read to and with their children. When a parent supports a child with his or her homework it aids a child's educational development as well as strengthens family integration. Also, an educated parent is more likely to raise up a healthy child because he/she can better understand modern healthcare methods and techniques and medical prescriptions. Equally, an uneducated farmer cannot utilise advances in agricultural practices because they are uninformed. On an aggregate level, an educated Nigerian populace can engage constructively with the government of the day at local, state or federal levels or their representative in the legislature. With education Nigerians will understand their rights and be capable of critically assessing government policies. Arguably, less votes can be easily bought and true democracy in Nigeria will triumph.

But it is not just about sending adults to school again. Like their children, they too must be supported with adequate books and educational materials. Those adults with learning difficulties must also be supported, and those with disabilities must also be given 100% support if they want to return back to learning. Public libraries must be built and adequately stocked across the country. They should be seen as alternative sources of learning and acquiring knowledge for everyone. Trades people must be continually aware of the latest technology in their individual trades. Education for economic growth should be the catch phrase. In the long term all Nigerians and Nigeria will benefit.

Finally, individual and collective aid. By this I mean those of us who are fortunate to be educated, and can afford to, should help others who are less fortunate to achieve education. There are millions of educated Nigerians at home and abroad who can, with a little self-sacrifice, compliment the Government's efforts. Fortunately, generous Nigerians and Nigerian led charities are already doing this. But much more still needs to be done in the education sector. It does not need to be expensive or too glamorous. Bit by bit, step by step, if all educated Nigerians contribute a little spare time, and sacrifice a little from their income we can together improve the quality of education for the rest of uneducated people in our local communities, and compliment Government for the benefit of the whole country.

For example, each year I travel from London to my village in Nigeria so I can purchase numerous school exercise books and distribute them free to every primary school child in my village – over four hundred children in number. I have been doing this for six years. I also bring with me as many children's story books and dictionaries that I am allowed to carry in the plane, and donate these to the two village primary schools so the children can have access to some books to read. I spend two weeks in the village during each trip and attend as many classes I can. I spend a lot of time with the children, reading to them and talking about the stories and pictures in the books. The children love the books and educational posters I bring. I also spend time with the village teachers and parents discussing with them how we can together improve the quality of primary education in the village and the teaching methods. Admittedly, my transport cost from London is far greater than the cost of buying the exercise books and story books. However, without my intervention the reality is that the majority of the children in my village would not have exercise books to write with or story books to read. Such a situation could easily have discouraged them from attending school and they may even have ended up as members of the unfortunate uneducated 10.5 million Nigerian children's club. On balance therefore, I believe the long term benefits for the children in my village, outweigh the high cost of my travelling from London to my village each year.

But my small intervention in my village is just one example of non-Government intervention. There are many other examples of Nigerians at home and abroad helping to improve the delivery of education in Nigeria. However, I think we still desperately need more interventions to support the delivery of quality education in Nigeria. After all, as I have argued, in the long run we all benefit from investing in Nigerian's children's future.

I accept that my suggestions will cost a lot of money and require a lot of planning. But costs should not dissuade us. Nigeria is not a poor country. Together, the private sector and the Nigerian Government can collectively afford to fund my suggestions. It just requires honesty, self-sacrifice, political will and a long term approach to managing our resources better and efficiently. It can be done. We should view education is an investment in human capital which will yield dividends for the country in the long run. Speaking about the importance of investing in education in the United Sates, President Obama said in a speech he gave in July 2013:

“If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century. If we don't make this investment, we'll put our kids, our workers, and our country at a competitive disadvantage for decades. So we must begin in the earliest years.” [6]

Conclusion
In summary, a “New Deal”, focused on “3 Es” is urgently required in Nigeria. Education that is functional for all Nigerian children; Education that provides all illiterate Nigerian adults a second chance to learn the key skills they need; and Education that includes continuous assessment for all Nigerian teachers so they can effectively teach and inspire our youth. This New Deal will benefit all Nigerians.

With 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school, I believe Nigeria is sitting on a time bomb. Without urgent intervention these children may become economically low productive adults and potentially end up as liabilities to themselves and the country. The skills gap in the future will grow and our economy will be worse off. Nigeria's education of all of its children is Nigeria's economy tomorrow. In the midst of Nigeria's expanding economy, its abundant natural resources and increasing connectivity with the global community, it is ironic that millions of its children are still out of school, and arguably millions more in school are receiving poor substandard education. Nigeria must deal now with this twin problem by investing time and money in creating a healthy educated work force for the future. We all have a collective responsibility to diffuse this time bomb quickly. If we do not, our nation's economic growth is at risk, our social and political fabric may weaken and in the end, all of us, yes all of us, will be worse off.

My suggestions are not radical or revolutionary. No, they are just simple common sense. I believe that if they are implemented, my suggestions can help to create an enlightened and fairer Nigeria that will be capable to handle future challenges long after our generation has passed on. Not doing anything should not be an option. Remember, the time bomb is ticking and “evil prospers when good people do nothing”.

Ifeanyichuku Ochei, London

[1] The APPG on Nigeria consists of UK Parliamentarians who are officially registered as sharing a particular interest in Nigeria. Its purpose is “to create a better understanding of issues relating to Nigeria; to promote links between Britain and Nigeria; and to support development and democracy in Nigeria”. For more information about the APPG Nigeria see, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/nigeria.htm

[2] Compared to other countries Nigeria fared badly. According to UNESCO, in 1999 Nigeria had 6.9 million children out-of-school, the latest figures now show it has 10.5 million. Ethiopia had 6.1 million children out-of-school in 1999, now it has 2.4 million. India had 20.3 million children out-of-school in 1999, now it has 2.3 million. Pakistan had 8.4 million children out-of- school in 1999, now it has 5.1 million. Ghana had 1.2 million in 1999 out-of-school now it has less than 500 thousand children. So while other countries managed to reduce their out-of-school figures in the last 13 years, Nigeria's figures increased. See: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2012-skills/ page 3 of the UNESCO report. See also page 62 of the UNESCO report for a graph.

[3] Reported on 16 October 2013 in “Today's Telegraph”, http://telegraphng.com/2013/10/boko-haram-others-cost-nigeria-n400b-lost-tax-revenues/

[4] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2012-skills/ page 5 of the UNESCO report.

[5] http://www.fmf.gov.ng/the-media/speeches/129-overview-of-the-2013-budget-by-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala.html

[6] Extract from a speech President Obama delivered at Knox College in Illinois USA, on 24 July 2013.

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